Jews are great at matching dishes with festivals. Shavuot is probably one of the all time favorites, especially if you like cheesecake. For some odd reason, though, it is also one of the festivals we take most lightly.
It is odd because if you look a little deeper, and remember that the Jewish festivals represent stages in our spiritual progress, then Shavuot acquires much greater significance. By spiritual progress, I’m not referring to some sort of mysticism, but to our ability to love one another.
Shavuot marks a point in our development when we receive the Torah, the law of giving. It is a seminal stage in actualizing the inclusive, all encompassing, and final stage of our development: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When Rabbi Akiva said that love your neighbor as yourself is a great klal (rule) in the Torah, he did not only refer to it as a law, but also as the klal (sum total, inclusion) of the whole Torah. In other words, all the laws of the Torah lead to that single goal of loving others as yourself.
If this is so, can we be surprised that we slight this festival and reduce it to a cheesecake festival? Who wants to love others, much less love them as myself? It’s the opposite of our nature.
True, but we did not write the Torah. Nor did we choose to receive it. If we had lived when it was given, we would probably have said, “No thanks, give it to the Babylonians; give it to the Assyrians; give to the Canaanites; give to anyone but us.” But legend has it they were smart enough to turn it down. Instead, so goes the joke, when God offered it to us, we asked, “How much is it?” And when God said, “It’s free,” we said, “Then give us two!”
So now we’re stuck with a task of being a light for the nations. We neither want to do it, nor understand what it means. But the world is resentful of our not doing whatever it is we are meant to be doing, and some hidden force we want nothing to do with is orchestrating things so that everyone will blame us for everything that’s wrong with the world. But hey, all we want is to live in peace behind a picket fence and the wheel of an SUV.
Alas, life, as John Lennon said, “is what happens when you make other plans.” In a world where everyone is dependent on everyone else through this amorphous term, “globalization,” we cannot pretend to live on an island all to ourselves. We can have a great life, no doubt, but only if everybody has a great life, too. The mutual responsibility that our people was famous for in the days of camels and tents must be franchised to the rest of the world in the days of Camry and One-Family houses.
The world needs mutual responsibility and cannot find it anywhere. We have become so alienated and self-centered that we take anti-depressants to function, “consume” Angry Birds and the likes of its flock to numb our minds, or turn to fundamentalism in a desperate search for meaning.
But there is no meaning in isolation. Meaning can be found only in human bonding. The first thing we want to do when something good happens to us is tell our friends about it. The first thing we want to do when something bad happens to us is for someone to come to our help. We are social beings, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Naturally, our spiritual wholeness also derives from our connectedness.
The trick to this spiritual-wholeness-through-connection, though, is the ability to unite above differences. We are unique, and want to stay that way. It is how we define who we are. The problem is that we are using our uniqueness to gain an edge over others. By that, we deny ourselves the enrichment and strength we could have received from them, while also wasting a huge amount of energy to try to protect ourselves from others. Instead of nourishing one another, we are busy destroying one another.
If we could reverse this mindset and apply our uniqueness toward the common good, who knows what we could achieve?
The ancient Hebrews had that all figured out. It’s still way down there, hidden under layers of self-centeredness to the point where you cannot detect its presence. Like the layers of dirt you need to dig out when excavating ancient sites, we need to peel off the layers of egoism and rediscover the ability to connect in mutual responsibility.
The world needs an example, a role model for executing love of others. Until we accomplish it and become that model, people will continue to execute each another.
Shavuot symbolizes the moment when we accept the task wholeheartedly, not because it’s easy, but because it is the right thing to do. And while we’re on it, it is perfectly OK to have some cheesecake, too.